Can't stand up for falling down

Goya's figures may be bowed, bent, hobbled and bound, but his drawings illuminate the stubborn tenacity of life on two feet
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The Independent Online

Goya's great print cycles, the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Disparates, are each a series of scenes. The eight Albums of drawings are largely sequences of single figures, or of twosomes so closely attached they become a single configuration. There is often not much apart from the figure, in the way of setting or situation: just a background of darkness, or even a blank sheet with a line for the ground. But it is situation enough. The figures need no more than themselves, because they are their own situation. In page after page of this human catalogue, the subject is a body in toils.

Goya's great print cycles, the Caprichos, the Disasters of War, the Disparates, are each a series of scenes. The eight Albums of drawings are largely sequences of single figures, or of twosomes so closely attached they become a single configuration. There is often not much apart from the figure, in the way of setting or situation: just a background of darkness, or even a blank sheet with a line for the ground. But it is situation enough. The figures need no more than themselves, because they are their own situation. In page after page of this human catalogue, the subject is a body in toils.

And the focus is specifically on that central topic of human dignity and human comedy - our standing. In all these drawings, Goya holds to an upright format. But not many of his figures stand fully upright, and very many of them have trouble with staying upright. They teeter, totter, stumble, tumble, sprawl. They walk on sticks or crutches, fall to their knees, struggle for their footing. They are bowed, bent, loaded, hobbled or bound. The trials and crises of life on two legs are a repeating theme in these drawings. And (for Goya) there are relatively few flyers.

This interest takes many forms. There's an active curiosity(especially in the late Bordeaux Albums) about alternatives to walking feet. People skate and roller-skate, ride in wheel-chairs and dog-drawn cripple-carts. They are carried piggy-back and in a kind of back-pack box-chair. A primitive, pedalless bicycle appears faintly behind the flailing roller-skater in Mad Skates. In the same album, too, there's the frightening, precarious figure of an ass walking on two legs.

Or there's the emphatic groundedness that Goya establishes with his cast shadows. You find drawings where the only thing on the page, apart from the figure, is the figure's own darkly-inked shadow, which is also - spreading from its feet - the only thing that gives any indication of ground. The effect is adhesive. The figure stands fixed on the mark of its own earth contact, or drags it behind like a trail.

The Man Carrying a Huge Load with his enormous pack is held like Atlas between two worlds, the one he carries and the one he stands upon - or equally, he is held between two shadows, the shadowed underside of his burden and the shadow it throws on the ground around him. His head is sunk beneath his load. His body is almost lost in its darkness. Shadow marks the fall of weight as much as light.

The Black Border Album provides a variety bill of gravity acts. Here they go: the rocking dancer, the old person falling down stairs, the other old person fallen to the ground, the beggar elaborately propped on crutches, the man unsteadily up a ladder, the pair of wrestlers, one hoisting the other off the earth as his nose is chewed - and among them stands an astronomer, upright, looking upward, bent on higher things.

That first character, the old wild dancing woman is one of the finest inventions of this album. It's another figure of contradictions. Beneath the jagged animation of her upper body, her skirt comes out in the shape of an upside-down cup, with her legs bent symmetrically stiff either side, the feet pointing out in opposite directions: all this making her lower half look like a solid-cast unit. So this dancer, as she swings up, seems to be tipping over as one piece, like a china figurine, something that - once it goes - is unable to save its own balance.

Yet not quite. There is still control. Notice the crucial counter point: the very sure and grounded foot on which she pivots and by which she keeps her balance. This body holds steady, even as it flings itself. It's common to stress the involuntariness of Goya's figures, to see them jerking like puppets, drifting like sleep-walkers. But the particular force of this drawing is its truer affirmation of self-balance: the body surrenders to its own momentum, but doesn't lose its equilibrium.

Balance, saved and lost, is one of Goya's repertoires in these drawings. Another is stability; being stable, being secure or being stuck. It is embodied in two motifs, which Goya often reverts to, a stance and a shape. The stance: legs apart, both feet planted equally on the ground. The shape: a grounded and symmetrical triangle, that is, an equilateral or isosceles with its base flat on the ground. They are both devices of stability - bodily or compositional. They may coincide too, the legs apart stance making a grounded triangle shape. Or this triangle may contain a whole figure.

Or two figures. It's an equilateral that bounds and grounds a pair of men in a later drawing, locked as they are in furious hand-to-hand combat. The widely planted legs of the man behind make a second equilateral within the main one. This shaping stresses how the image is about stability - not stability achieved but stability fiercely defended, a life-and-death struggle to keep one's footing, with the risk in any attempt to throw of being thrown oneself. It suggests deadlock - footings held so tenaciously that the fight will never end.

Tenacity becomes paralysis. Strength ends up stuck. This is the moral here, and not just here. The proximity of fortitude and fixity is a recurring theme of Goya's figuration. Either may turn into the other. Think of his images of bondage, prisoners in chains, straight-jacketed lunatics, and how, with the arms thus fused to the body, Goya sometimes compounds this by incorporating the head too, sinking it down within the torso's contour. The figure becomes a kind of block on legs, and this compacting - while you might say it dehumanises, objectifies - also toughens and defends the figure.

Human stability offers some equivalent to this. It is the dilemma of footing: ground yourself too broadly, plant your feet too far apart, and what was sturdiness becomes stranded, a stance from which it's impossible to recover (as in games such as Twister). You can't get moving, you can only stand or fall.

Goya can use this stance to suggest a stupid stuckness in circumstance. In an earlier drawing a man stands with over-splayed legs, which are emphatically triangled, while hastily hitching up his breeches. The immobilising posture further compromises his already compromised position. It may be arguable whether he's caught after sex or after stool. But whichever, caught in the act, he's also fastened to the spot.

With the late drawings of the Bordeaux Albums, matters of stability can become extreme. The main man in Lunatics becomes a single triangular mass. He's a solid heap, with almost all articulation abolished. The head is entirely incorporated - swallowed under the arc of the shoulders. The solidification is enforced by the way the legs turn into an arched bridge. With no knees and no crotch, these "legs" just go in a hoop, up from one foot, round, over, and down into the other.

What a figure! But its impact comes from the way it's not simply inert. Rather, it is a massive assertion of inert presence - the human being as obstruction. The figure has a sudden, downward impetus. Its standing feels like a landed jump. Its planted-out feet are holding all the ground they can get. It's a very funny picture (it may be insensitive to feel this) just because it's a picture of barging and unbudgeable insensitivity. That is also the explicit subject of Lunatics. They have no sense of personal space or other niceties, or indeed conflict, who don't recognise each other as people, who just bump and squash. One thing that lunatics mean to Goya is people who don't care, and who thereby achieve a kind of invulnerability.

This is not the same as inextinguishable vitality (though that's a quality for which Goya is also sometimes admired). It is a far more reduced condition. Take another late, firmly rooted figure, often identified as a miser. The leg-arch appears again, but it supports a torso that's basically a lump, a rough lumping-together or bagging-up of back, head and arms. But it isn't only misers and crooks who bury their goods; those preparing for enemy occupation and plunder do it too. Surviving the duration: this theme is figured again and again in Goya's body-shapes. Heads down.

And the monstrous unheaded shape that dominates Lunatics - it's the kind of creature that sci-fi might well call "The Thing". "A person is not a thing" determined Immanuel Kant, teaching there a basic principle of moral enlightenment. In Goya it seems a person is very often a thing, or getting on that way; becoming a heap, a lump, a block, a mass, a stump. You can take this as an appalled rendering of human degradation, or a despairing sense of how far persons fall short of Kant's ideal. But in his late drawings Goya's thing-shaping of the human is seldom without affirmation, some bottom-line sense of security. It is a brace position, a hedgehog defence, a minimal state of tenacity, endurance, stubborn survival. "Simply the thing I am / shall make me live."

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